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Luc Ferrari - Presque Rien

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Artist: Luc Ferrari

Album: Presque Rien

Label: Recollection GRM

Review date: Feb. 21, 2013

Decades after the fact, French composer Luc Ferrari recalled that the first time he played “Presque Rien” for his colleagues at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, their faces turned to stone. Such dismay is often the fate of any art that takes its medium to a wholly logical yet previously unacceptable conclusion, let alone art that changes the game. This 21-minute piece, which was first heard in 1970, did both, and the work of contemporary artists as disparate as Chris Watson and Vanessa Rossetto owe it a hefty debt.

Ostensibly a realistic rendering of the sounds of a Dalmatian fishing village waking up, “Presque Rien” was actually a thoroughly constructed piece, edited together from sounds recorded on different mornings. The title translates as “Almost Nothing,” which could refer to the nearly invisible hand of the composer. You can’t hear his interventions, but the pace of change is so rapid that it quickly becomes clear that you’re hearing something more like a time-lapse film than a documentary recording; some invisible hand is definitely doing something. Or maybe it refers the absence of conventional musical content. Bugs buzz and rattle, trucks cough and rumble, people whistle and kids shout, but no instruments are played, and it takes 18 minutes for an intentionally musical activity (someone singing) to occur. The main thing that makes “Presque Rien” music is the fact that Ferrari composed it using concrete sounds — that is, he manipulated the sonic material itself rather than use symbols written on paper, which tell players of conventional instruments what to do, to direct the sound. While this fact places the piece directly in the lineage of musique concrète, with its compositions made out of the sounds of trains and doors, Ferrari’s contemporaries had a hard time dealing with music made from sounds that were just happening, as opposed to sounds that had been made to happen. Not that Ferrari cared. Pleased with the options opened up by this new approach, he went ahead and made three more such pieces, which are all collected for the first time on this double LP.

Having made his point, Ferrari didn’t belabor it. While he used field records for each subsequent iteration, each time he deployed them with different intentions. On “Presque Rien #2, Ainsi Continue La Nuit Dans Ma Tête Multiple,” a narrator tries to explain what he is recording in hushed tones, only to have the night’s sounds get into his head, so that he ends up talking about what he projects onto the material. This draws attention to the recordist/composer as an actor upon the environment, the environment’s impact in return upon the recordist/composer, and the impossibility of completely disentangling the two. The conceit behind the 1989 edition, “Presque Rien Avec Filles,” is that a concealed composer/photographer records some girls having a picnic. If that sounds potentially passive and prurient, it ends up being neither. The opening nature sounds are soon elbowed aside by isolated words and exhalations, which are in turn blasted by bursts of a very late ’80s-sounding drum machine. The beats are frankly obnoxious, but they still mark the piece as a progression; rather than make music that retreads the methods and material of what by then had been recognized as a masterpiece, he used the sounds of the moment, both cool and uncool, in ways that drew attention to the original piece’s constructed nature. Because if this “Presque Rien” has a drum machine strafing the bugs, how much of the original piece’s apparent naturalism had Ferrari manufactured?

The fourth and final version of “Presque Rien” is subtitled “La remontée du village,” and while Ferrari first presented it in 1998, this is its first appearance on record. This time he walks into Ventimiglia, a small town near the French-Italian border, collecting the musical chatter of the residents as well as the cacophony of TVs blaring into the streets and scooters tearing past. The composer is present from the beginning, first inserted into the material — you can hear him chatting with his wife as they walk up the road — and then by such non-naturalist interventions as electronically distorted shouts and subtly inserted percussive and keyboard sounds. But you can also hear his influence in the way a person’s voice shifts to the foreground so obtrusively that it doesn’t feel related to the street sounds heard behind it. In Ferrari’s own words, it’s a real fake, made from concrete material yet obviously constructed. Really, the title “Preque Rien” has always been a lie, or at least a red herring, because the composer has always been doing quite a bit more than nothing. But if you get past the titular lie, you arrive at something that relishes the moment as completely as any free improvisation, and embraces the entire range of human and natural sound more completely than anything I’ve ever heard from John Cage.

This double LP not only collects all four versions of “Presque Rien” for the first time, it reproduces them with a level of attention to presentation that shames shoddy reissue outfits everywhere. The gatefold sleeve is textured so that it feels like the successive iterations of the music have been etched into it, and each LP side is cut at 45 rpm for maximum fidelity; it feels like you can reach out and touch the sounds as they manifest in your listening space.

By Bill Meyer

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